Theophilus Ebenhaezer (Eben) Dönges was born in Klerksdorp in the former Transvaal province on 8 March 1898. He came to pursue a BA degree at the Victoria College in Stellenbosch, today known as Stellenbosch University (SU), at the beginning of 1916. This was followed by an MA in philosophy in 1919.
During 1920, shortly after becoming the registrar for judge president Sir Etienne de Villiers in Bloemfontein, he decided to enter the legal field and obtained an LLB degree from the University of London. He also passed the exam for the Council of Legal Education, Middle Temple. Dönges completed his studies with an LLD from the London School of Economics and was accepted to both the Pretoria and Cape Town bars on his return.
Apart from his professional legal work, he also made a living from journalism. During his lifetime he worked as journalist, editor and assistant editor at various daily papers, including Die Burger and The South African Nation.
Dönges displayed a passion for the Afrikaans culture and language. For many years he would serve as chairperson of the liaison committee of Afrikaans cultural organisations, as well as vice-chair of the executive committee of the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK). In addition, he served on the SU Council from 1953 before being appointed as chancellor in 1959.
Dönges first made his entry into politics during 1941 when he was elected as a representative of the Legislative Assembly (Volksraad) for the Fauresmith constituency. Seven years later he was elected as a member of parliament for Worcester, as well as to the cabinet as minister of post and telecommunication. Later that same year he assumed a new role, this time as minister of the interior.
Following Dr DF Malan’s resignation as Cape provincial leader in November 1953, Dönges became the National Party’s new provincial leader. He would also serve as minister of finance between 1958 and 1966. Following the assassination of prime minister HF Verwoerd on 6 September 1966, he became the acting prime minister until the National Party Congress named BJ Vorster as the official replacement.
Dönges was nominated as state president of South Africa on 1 June 1967, but after suffering a stroke, he fell into a coma before he could take office. He would never regain consciousness and passed away on 10 January 1968.
– By Steyn du Toit